By Tom Maguire
LONDON — A sharp polarisation of voters towards the extreme right and left was a key feature of the first round of the French presidential elections, held on April 23.
French presidential elections are held in two rounds if no candidate gets a majority in the first round, the leading two candidates going into a second vote two weeks later. Winner of the first round was the candidate of the Socialist Party (PS) Lionel Jospin, who scored 23% of the vote. Also going into the second round is former prime minister Jaques Chirac, a leading figure in the Gaullist party, the RPR (Rally for the Republic), who scored 20%.
Despite coming second, Chirac remains the favourite to win the second round. Jospin was able to come first only because the RPR fielded two candidates, the other being the current prime minister, Edouard Balladur, who scored 19%. Now eliminated, Balladur immediately called on his supporters to back Chirac in the May 7 second round — and a large majority are likely to do so.
Also weighing heavily in the second round electoral arithmetic is the 15% scored by leader of the far-right National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen. His votes are also likely to go disproportionately to Chirac, as are those of two other far-right candidates who scored about 5% between them.
In all, the right garnered around 60% of the vote, and this seems likely to translate into a second-round victory for Chirac.
To the left of the PS, 8.4% of the vote (about 2.4 million) went to Communist Party (PCF) candidate Robert Hue. This was roughly in line with recent Communist electoral scores, but less than the 10% which the PCF had aimed at.
Hue certainly lost some voters to the impressive score of Arlette Laguiller, the candidate of the Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvriere (Workers' Struggle), who got 1.6 million votes, 5.3% of the total. Laguiller, who first stood as a presidential candidate in 1974 and is a well-known figure on French television, undoubtedly attracts a certain "personal" vote, which does not automatically translate into support for Lutte Ouvriere.
Nonetheless, the vote for Laguiller puts her organisation in a strong position among the forces to the left of the PS. In a sharp break with their previous ultra-sectarian stance, Lutte Ouvriere leaders immediately put out a call for the formation of a new party to the left of the PS and PCF, which would include all those who "put themselves on the terrain of the defence of the oppressed and exploited". It remains to be seen whether this is a serious proposal or just a "stunt" to win sympathy from unaffiliated left-wingers.
The 3% vote for the Green candidate Dominique Voynet will certainly be a disappointment for the ecologist current in France, which hardly expected to be easily beaten by Lutte Ouvriere. Part of the explanation for the poor showing of the French Greens must be the internal political turmoil since Voynet replaced Antoine Waechter as leader in 1994.
Waechter insisted that the greens should be "neither of the left nor the right", but this position was challenged and overturned by Voynet who sought to place the Greens firmly on the left. This position has been highly controversial among the ranks of the party, and implicitly rejected this year when the Greens' national conference formally rejected offers of support for their presidential campaign from left-wing organisations. As a result, the political "profile" of the Greens has been confused and ineffective, as opposed to the sharply defined right- and left- wing positions of candidates like Le Pen and Laguiller.
In this election, the noticeable thing has been the weakening of support for all the traditional parties and the strong showing of the political extremes. Only 18 million people of the 30 million people who bothered to vote cast their ballot for mainstream parties.
Le Pen scored 4.5 million votes, his best ever performance and further evidence of the strength of the far right.
Some 4 million people cast their votes for candidates who openly proclaimed their adherence to communism, Hue and Laguiller (one of Laguiller's main slogans was "Communism is still the future of humanity").
The polarisation to the extreme right and left follows nearly 15 years of corrupt and discredited Socialist Party government and comes in the middle of a seemingly endless recession in which 15% of the work force are unemployed. Radical political solutions will certainly gain ground as this crisis continues.